Goodbye, Columbus

Mary Mitchell Selmore, photographed at Pleasant Point, Maine by Charles E. Brown, circa 1901. Selmore was part of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and the second wife of longtime Passamaquoddy Chief Sopiel Selmore (Collections of Maine Historical Society).

I write this farewell missive from the traditional homeland of the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland,” a collective name for the indigenous populations that for the past 13,000 years have occupied the territory we now refer to as northern New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and Quebec.

That, right there, is a land acknowledgement, by the way. It is increasingly common to hear such statements in the opening remarks at conferences, protests, or performances around the world. What the planet’s 370 million indigenous people share—as varied and complex as their cultures, languages, and histories undoubtedly are—is the experience of expropriation, exploitation, attempted extermination, and historical erasure that no mere statement can begin to repair.

Yet even small speech acts such as this one have value, in the eyes of many. As symbolic reinsertions, they are the first step in bringing awareness to non-native members of dominant groups that have for centuries remained willfully or unwittingly blind, not only to the plight of indigenous people but to their very presence within our communities.

According to the official United States map, I am not presently in Dawnland but in the state of Maine, a relatively young entity created in 1820 whose upcoming bicentennial has already spurred a good deal of collective soul-searching. To cite one example, rather than reiterate the old state slogan, “The Way Life Should Be,” in looking forward to 2020 the Maine Humanities Council has asked residents to collectively grapple with the question, “How should life be?”

As for the Maine Historical Society, rather than promote the state’s “Vacationland” brand in the lead-up to its 200th anniversary, the institution invited Wabanaki advisors to curate an exhibition that speaks to their millennial relationship to this land as one of leadership, obligation, and resilience. “Holding Up the Sky,” on display through February, showcases heritage items alongside contemporary artworks and includes the stunning photograph of Passamaquoddy tribal elder Mary Selmore pictured above.

The show also includes one particularly disturbing item: the Phips Proclamation of 1755. In order to secure land for English settlement in the territory now known as Maine, the Massachusetts governor offered sizeable bounties on native scalps and ensured settlers freedom in “pursuing, captivating, killing, and destroying all and every” one of the Eastern Indians. It was sanctioned genocide, and it almost worked.

I grew up in Massachusetts, but I never learned about the horrific Phips Proclamation in school. In fact, our popular imagination had the story the other way around, with “Indians” cast as the blood-thirsty scalpers of poor, hardworking “Settlers.” And though I was raised in the traditional homeland of the Wampanoag people, whose early encounter with the “Pilgrims” is celebrated every year on Thanksgiving, I was led to believe that the Native Americans of our region were long gone. (They most assuredly are not.)

Despite systematic efforts by colonizers of European extraction to remove indigenous people from the territory now known as the northeastern United States, and despite the devastating epidemics they spread, both the Wabanaki and the Wampanoag people survived. What’s more, they have managed to preserve and restore elements of their cultures, languages, traditional knowledge, and worldviews in the face of injustices doled out through the decades, right down to the present day.

Not so for the Taíno people of the Caribbean. “They would make fine servants,” wrote Christopher Columbus of the first populations he encountered following his 1492 transatlantic journey in search of the Far East. “With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

In contrast to the persistent view that celebrates the exploits of an intrepid explorer who opened new trade routes for Europe, historical documents have revealed that Columbus was also a slave trader who inaugurated an era of brutal usurpation and genocide.

This is hardly breaking news. Even as my elementary school teacher had us memorizing, “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” over 100 Native delegates gathered at the United Nations offices in Geneva to confront the navigator’s legacy of violence. Among other important outcomes of this conference, it was resolved “to observe October 12, the day of so-called ‘discovery’ of America, as an international day of solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.”

Writing in 1977, artist and poet Jimmie Durham stated optimistically that “from now on, children all over the world will learn the true story of American Indians on Columbus Day instead of a pack of lies about three European ships.”*

Sadly, the world has been slow to catch on.

Today, my youngest daughter, Fiona, is twice the age I was when this resolution was adopted. For the very first time—and thanks to decades of effort by tribal leaders and activists from the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki Nations—Fiona and her classmates celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day this past October, after Maine Governor Janet Mills signed a bill into law.

In eschewing the federal Columbus Day holiday, Maine joined Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. in favoring celebrations that recognize each region’s native populations. On something of a roll, Maine lawmakers additionally passed legislation this year banning Native American mascots in public schools throughout the state, to the great dismay of a vocal band of holdouts.

Even when change is mandated by legislators, it doesn’t always take place, of course. Despite the enactment of a 2001 law requiring schools statewide to teach Native American history and culture, little had been done over the past two decades to integrate the subject until Portland public schools began working in recent months with tribal leaders to craft and roll out a Wabanaki Studies curriculum districtwide.

It seems the tide may at last be turning. The move to decolonize the curriculum and recenter the world’s indigenous people in our approaches to history is a growing global phenomenon.

While some Latin American countries continue to observe the date on which Columbus arrived in the Americas, a number now refer to it as Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) or some variation on “Day of Respect of Cultural Diversity.” These are largely commemorations that celebrate the region’s native ethnic groups and cultures in their resistance to the European colonizer.

In 2002, under Hugo Chavez’s rule, Venezuela began to mark an annual Día de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Two years later, a crowd of activists toppled a statue of Cristóbal Colón, as the Italian mariner is known in Caracas.

All the same, monuments to the man continue to enjoy a place of privilege in public spaces around the world. An online “Columbus Monuments Page” lists over 600 such statues in approximately 30 countries throughout the Americas and in Europe. Toppling all of them would take a concerted effort, in the face of fierce opposition to such revisionist interventions. Indeed, in spite of all we know about his crimes against humanity, Columbus continues to enjoy widespread admiration among a powerful contingent who credit him with launching the Age of Discovery.

Fiona Hilley (8), my daughter, agreed to pose as Christopher Columbus when a crew member onboard a replica of the explorer’s flagship Santa Maria offered her the chance. Antics naturally ensued.

Miseducation onboard the Santa María

One gorgeous September afternoon this past fall, a month before Maine celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I brought my daughters down to Portland’s waterfront, having learned that a replica of Columbus’s flagship, the Nao Santa María, would spend three days docked at the wharf. Warning Ava and Fiona at the outset that our visit onboard the three-masted vessel was not about paying homage, I enlisted their help in a mission to examine how the ship’s history was being represented to visitors.

One of the first panels we encountered declared the Santa María “the most famous ship in universal history” and explained that the replica was constructed in Huelva, Spain (as the original had been) “with the objective of reliving history.” I wondered how the slain Taíno would feel about reliving their people’s genocide.

Timed to coincide with the 525th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in “America,” the contemporary voyage celebrates the role of Spanish ships that “opened routes” of “communication and mutual knowledge” and led to “mutual encounters and meetings.” Everything, it seems, took place on perfectly mutual terms, according to the Nao Victoria Foundation that financed this initiative.

As we made our way through the dim hull, we read about how “unbreathable” the space would have been in the 15th century. Not a single sign indicated, however, that the human cargo Columbus carried back to Spain could have been subjected to these extreme conditions. In fact, none of the navigator’s activities in the New World were discussed at all.

Back on deck, I asked a crew member to fill in the blanks left by the spotty exhibition. She was visibly uncomfortable as she referred, in passing, to the “less good impacts on the indigenous people” of Columbus’s voyages. Claiming ignorance on the subject, the veteran sailor suggested we do something more fun for the kids and she let them ring the ship’s bell. Then, in the hushed tones of a co-conspirator, the middle-aged woman asked if my girls would like to don the navigator’s faux fur-lined red robe and floppy hat. Visitors typically pay US$5 a pop for the privilege, but our guide was willing to forego the fee if a game of dress-up could get me to stop asking questions.

The whole trippy experience called to mind one of my all-time favorite movies, Goodbye, Lenin!, a 2003 German film by Wolfgang Becker about the psychological challenges involved in transitioning from a particular worldview to a radically different one. It’s October 1989 when Christiane, an East German woman deeply devoted to the socialist cause, falls into a coma. When she awakes eight months later, everything has changed, only Christiane doesn’t know it thanks to increasingly desperate efforts by her son to shield her from the realization that communism has fallen along with the Berlin Wall and her entire way of life.

Between the Santa María’s sparse infographics and its numerous theatrical props, I couldn’t help but feel that, rather than educate young visitors, children were being implicated in an elaborate and increasingly hard-to-maintain fiction, as if, like Becker’s coma survivor, they were too frail to handle the truth.

The reality is, we educators are all too often the fragile ones.

As Fiona demonstrated, if you give a kid a costume, she’s likely to play dress up, even when morally opposed to what it symbolizes. If we ask our students to memorize a catchy rhyme, they will be able to repeat it for the rest of their lives, whether or not it accurately reflects reality. And if we teach our students a mythology rather than give them the tools to critically interrogate history, we’re sure to be hearing from them in years to come.

The girls and I followed up our Santa María experience with a corrective visit to “Holding Up the Sky.”

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*In the original print version of this article, Jimmie Durham was characterized as a “Cherokee artist and poet”; this reference has been removed, as Durham’s claim to Native American heritage has been contested.

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